Tag Archives: Chilean literature

Review: NERVOUS SYSTEM by Lina Meruane

Translated from Spanish (Chile) by Megan McDowell (Atlantic Books, 2021)

In Nervous System, Lina Meruane returns to the obsessions with a failing body that preoccupied her earlier work, the uncomfortably brilliant Seeing Red (also translated by Megan McDowell, published by Atlantic Books in 2018). In both books, Meruane explores how a body pushed to its limits clings to life: in Seeing Red, the protagonist is suffering from a degenerative ocular condition that makes her eyes fill with blood, and in Meruane’s latest novel the main character is suffering from a disease of the nervous system. If the tension between inside and outside the body in Seeing Red was almost cannibalistic, in Nervous System illness is treated differently, the interior observation of the body’s limits aligned with the infinite reach and renewal of the cosmos.

The main character, Ella, is trying to write her doctoral thesis on black holes, and feels unable to complete it. She wishes she could have an acceptable pretext for taking some time off, such as an illness severe enough to prevent her working but not dangerous enough to kill her; this wish is fulfilled when shooting pains in her arm turn out to be a degenerative disease affecting her nervous system. Ella’s doctoral research takes on new meaning as her nervous system is mapped out before her like the solar system: connected, fragile, and immensely complex. Ella comes to embody the matter that she studies: she is obsessed with “stars that had already lost their light and collapsed in on themselves”, and is herself presented as exactly that. She is at once a dreamer who “dreams of bottling shooting stars” and a fatalist, convinced of her own inability to carry out her research or to function in the world. The vocabulary consistently reinforces the parallel between Ella’s body and the cosmos, yet this is not to designate Ella as extraordinary in any way (indeed, Ella’s name means “she” or “her” in Spanish, and her boyfriend is named El – “he” or “him”), but rather to show her connectedness to everything in her universe: her family, her past, her country (both the one she was raised in and the one she has moved to), her relationships (the hole at the centre of the galaxy is “a navel so dark no-one has ever seen it”, the galaxies that cannibalise each other a subtle metaphor for Ella and El’s own relationship), and everything that formed her and that she helps to form.

Ella has always suffered from the knowledge that her mother died in childbirth, and that her older brother forever holds her responsible. She is sharp, brittle and full of self-doubt, struggling to live her life when her body fails her, but refusing to be defined by its difference. She is “always trying to mend the fracture of childhood”, orbiting around the varyingly stable points in her life as she tries to make sense of her path. The language describing these connections is rich, by turns (and sometimes simultaneously) savage and delicate: El is “skinny as a dagger”, Ella’s birth mother is “the body that had held her before sending her out into the world.” Megan McDowell maintains this tension in the translation with a rich lexical range and many memorable expressions. Right from the second page there was a sentence I couldn’t stop returning to (about birds frazzled on electrical wires), both in and out of context: “Those bodies, possessed by the light.” The banality of the everyday is tied to the infinity of the universe in both content and language: when there is a nationwide power cut, the country becomes a “giant black hole”, and the protagonist remembers a time when her house had been full of “long skinny nebulous candles, wrapped in blue paper or tied with string, ready for emergencies.” The italicisation of expressions that are either contextually or syntactically unexpected is a feature of the narrative, and McDowell excels at rendering these in ways that stand out but never seem inappropriate (for example: “Her nervous system kept the memory failed twisted useless of an injury and went on reliving it”).

Ella’s illness is not only aligned with the cosmos, however, but also to life on Earth: “infection” from immigration is life, whereas immunity to it is death, and there are warnings that seem medical, but are really social comments. Observations on immigration (“It’s no longer a state secret that the cadavers belong to recent immigrants and that they aren’t the only ones: others are discovered during the excavation for the foundation of a building, and in a mass grave beside the river with shovels swastikas knives banners proclaiming death to migrants”) sit alongside important perspectives on gendered violence (“because even before that night another man had come at her. In a bend of the past. In her own country … He held her neck, pressed her face against the wall crushed snails warm slime. On her thighs some rough fingers multiplied and tore at her underwear, went into her like slippery worms, covered her nose so she’d open her mouth”) and on the inhumanity of the healthcare system (“Into the trash went the tattered crab and the whole maternal breast”). Connections and consequences are also foregrounded in comments such as this one on the unseen effects of social rehabilitation and progress:

“The tower rebuilt after the attack that brought it down had powerful beams pointing up to the sky, to illuminate the route of so many lost souls. Those rays interrupted the migratory routes of birds, and thousands of them got tangled up in the light, whirling around drugged hallucinating interrogated by bright spotlights, noisily flapping their arrhythmic wings. Trapped in the light, they finally fell from the air at dawn.
Birds with failing hearts exploding on the pavement.”

The alternative perspective shown here is characteristic of Meruane’s writing: accepted narratives are questioned and subverted without being overly political or moralising. The perspective throughout Nervous System is, simply, one of connectedness: though it has an almost linear story at its heart, it is forever circling and returning to its primary preoccupations of the apparent dualities of health and fragility, enormity and banality, violence and tenderness. Its great accomplishment is that the connection between the individual body and the cosmic one is maintained throughout without ever seeming forced, and this carries through in McDowell’s translation: Nervous System is clever without being pretentious, introspective without being self-indulgent, and grand without being grandiose. This is an intelligent and profound follow-up to Seeing Red, and is sure to appeal to admirers of Meruane’s work as well as those discovering her for the first time.

Review copy of Nervous System provided by Atlantic Books

Review: Andrea Jeftanovic, THEATRE OF WAR

Translated from Spanish (Chile) by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2020)

Theatre of War is Andrea Jeftanovic’s debut novel, and the final offering from a brilliant 2020 Charco catalogue. The narrator, Tamara, presents her past as if it were a play, inviting an audience to sit and observe “the spectacle of my childhood” in a script that is continually being written. Her family are all present on stage, acting the role ascribed to them, and Tamara is simply an actor playing her part, not directing or pulling the strings. This allows for an objectivity in parts of the narration that provides an excellent balance to Tamara’s more introspective monologues, a balance that mirrors the tension between historical atrocity and personal experience.

An unresolved trauma hangs heavy over the childhood household: Tamara’s father has fled his Balkan homeland, and is obsessed both with the memories of his losses there and with the news that tells him how his homeland continues to tear itself apart. “Dad is stuck in time, remembering the war” says Tamara’s child voice, observing how the present is not enough to pull her father out of the emotional stasis in which the war has left him. The legacy of the war is passed down to a generation who had no direct experience of it, transmitted through the father’s silences and obsessions: “I inhabit places I’ve never been. Dad, on the other hand, has never left that distant time.” Dragged into a past that her father can neither leave nor fully share, Tamara is left adrift, and turns to writing to find her own territory (“I founded my own country in a blue notebook where I’m not a minority”), and this gives her a place to call home (“My blue journal, the site where I’d founded my homeland, now pushes me into new territories”). As for Tamara’s mother, she is struggling with ghosts of her own, as it transpires that her other two children are from a different relationship (which will be the only one she remembers when a sudden collapse leads her to lose a big swathe of her memory). She papers over the cracks in her marriage, finding solace in the arms of a decorator, and ultimately leaves Tamara’s father one night that represents “another warped date that will alter the rest of the calendar.”

All of this brokenness is recounted in the present tense, lending an immediacy to the narration that works very well with the theatrical setting. Though Tamara as a character can only follow where her role takes her, Jeftanovic as author deftly directs her narrator via a detached yet expressive prose that recounts personal and historical tragedy without melodrama or sensationalism. Frances Riddle’s translation is, as always, impeccable: perfectly pitched and with an admirable knack for finding unexpected words and collocations that, once you’ve read them, seem like the only possible option: a “gnash of fire on the horizon”, “dented voices shuddering the walls”, “there are lagoons of silence”, “Dad cloaked by the newspaper, hiding his fist of a heart behind it”, “they strafe the centre of my heart”).

The wars in Theatre of War are all-pervading and suffocating, but feature primarily as a backdrop for the characters’ lives: the real battles are between the characters themselves, for their love and survival. In her adult life, Tamara struggles to build lasting relationships, to allow herself to love, and to come to terms with her childhood. Her multiple losses leave her standing “in the middle of the battlefield”, with the first glimmer of healing coming only when she reunites with her sister. I will, however, leave you to discover where that encounter (along with the many others that make up her adult life) takes her for, as the director of this play warns us as we hurtle towards the final scene, “everyone’s secrets will be revealed.” Theatre of War is a striking debut from Jeftanovic, a first-class translation from Riddle, and an excellent conclusion to Charco’s 2020 catalogue.

Review copy of Theatre of War provided by Charco Press

Join the virtual launch for Theatre of War on Tuesday 8 December